Capitol Alert

Legislators want to overhaul California utilities regulator

California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles.
California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles. TNS

Saying California’s utilities regulator has failed, lawmakers are seeking a constitutional amendment that would allow them to dismantle and rebuild the embattled California Public Utilities Commission.

“Everybody recognizes the system is broken,” said Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles. “I’m proposing that we hit the reset button.”

The commission, which is responsible for overseeing areas that include California’s sprawling energy infrastructure, telecommunication and transportation, has been a regular target for lawmakers as a string of scandals have raised questions about the regulator’s effectiveness.

A prolonged methane leak in Aliso Canyon has led to charges against a Southern California utility company and offered the latest cause for criticism of the PUC’s oversight. The commission faced heavy scrutiny after a deadly gas-line explosion in San Bruno in 2010, producing an investigation of inappropriate communications, and clashed with lawmakers over the closure of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

“There’s not one part of the state that hasn’t been affected,” Gatto said.

The PUC’s authority derives from language in the state constitution, giving the regulator a measure of autonomy.

Gatto wants to ask voters to unravel that structure and put lawmakers in charge of what happens next. If the measure passes, lawmakers would have a two-year window to set up a new governance structure.

That could mean a successor agency with a diminished scope or even dissolving the PUC and distributing its powers among existing government entities, Gatto said.

“Does it make sense for the PUC to regulate hot-air balloons and Uber and telecom and cable and gas lines and electric utilities, all in one agency? The answer is clearly ‘no,’” Gatto said.

Because it would amend the constitution, the measure would need a two-thirds vote in the Legislature – and thus Republican support – to go before voters. It would not need the approval of Gov. Jerry Brown, who vetoed a package of changes to the PUC last year after he deemed them “unworkable.”

A spokeswoman for the PUC said that the organization has “undertaken many reform efforts in the past year.” The organization does not have a position on Gatto’s proposal.

“There is still much to do, and we look forward to working with the Legislature on any constructive and helpful reform initiative that is put forward,” PUC director Terrie Prosper said in an email. “Only by working together on real changes that have the ability to succeed can we make the CPUC stronger and more efficient, and our relationship with the Legislature more productive.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert